I am up early. I could not sleep in. I am on fire to write.
The cats yowl and walk on my face at 4:45am these days. They are bored and hungry. Rather than rage at them, I just get up and feed them. When I returned to bed this morning, I planned to go back to sleep. Instead, I thought about advice a peer wrote on a draft at work: “reduce gerunds.”
As a refresher, a gerund is the -ing form of a verb, and it functions as a noun. Planning. Sleeping. Writing. Revising. All words I scratched out as I wrote the first two paragraphs.
I began a book last night that I had to put down twenty pages in. It seemed every sentence included a gerund. Blaspheming. Barreling. Many sentences contained two or three. As verbs they would have jabbed. As nouns, they lost their punch. I struck words with my mental red pen as I read. Eventually I was too distracted to continue. I closed the book and went to sleep.
When I awoke, I thought about gerunds. One of my favorite parts of my job is that I work with talented people who are smart with words. Who respect words. Who love words. Since we are a distributed company, we write. We write all day long. We write in Slack. We write on internal blogs. We write in Google docs. And when we need to publish something important, we review each others’ writing.
I delight when a teammate or a peer circulates a draft for review. The review process surfaces what others see and experience when they read. “Switch these paragraphs for better flow.” “You can cut this entire section.” “Use specific examples.” “Reduce gerunds.”
The reduce gerunds one stuck with me. In part because it was a surprise. I wondered why reduce gerunds? At the time, I had never given gerunds any thought. I did not remember that advice from any of the writing books I’ve read. That’s one of the things that got me back out of bed this morning. I wanted to check The Elements of Style, On Writing Well, The Chicago Manual of Style. I didn’t find anything there.
But the advice holds. When I replace gerunds with infinitive verbs, the work becomes crisper. I still can’t articulate why, but I experience it to be true. In work communications, “I am planning to” feels soft compared with “I plan to.” Maybe because the verb “is” isn’t descriptive while “plan” is. Maybe it’s similar to the passive voice. When you say in active voice, “I made a mistake,” you take ownership, whereas the passive “mistakes were made” distances you from the mistakes. It deflects responsibility.
In personal writing, I often begin my journal entries with, “I am sitting” in whatever chair I happen to write from at that time. Why not, “I sit”? I think it might feel too direct as the writer. “I sit in the Adirondack chair in the garden” feels weird. Too immediate. It is uncomfortable in its intimacy. But that directness, that clarity, that intimacy are exactly why it’s better for the reader.
I woke early, and gerunds kept me awake. Now I sit in the chaise lounge by the living room window. I am restless to write, so I write.